WASHINGTON — The Bush administration flatly refused Tuesday to consider lifting the embargo on Cuba in the wake of Fidel Castro's announcement that he will abandon the island's presidency.
"I can't imagine that happening anytime soon," Deputy Secretary of State John Negroponte said when asked about lifting the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.
U.S. officials said they saw little difference in the policies of Castro and his most likely successor, his brother Raul.
"At this point, you've seen no real difference in this government headed by Raul Castro than the government headed by Fidel Castro over the past 50 years." State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
Florida Republican Sen. Mel Martinez said in Miami that "we have not changed the players. It's only been the transfer from one dictator to another dictator."
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., said it does not matter "at all whether Fidel, Raul or any other thug is named head of anything in Cuba."
She also urged the administration to indict Fidel Castro for the 1996 shootdown of two Brothers to the Rescue aircraft, now that he will no longer be protected by his status as a head of state.
But with Fidel Castro on the sidelines, one of the strongest justifications for the nearly five-decade-long embargo against Cuba is gone, and several Cuba experts say a major U.S. policy review will become inevitable as the changing dynamics in Cuba and the United States take effect.
"Beneath the surface, there's a lot of dynamic things occurring in Cuba and the United States," said Daniel Erikson, a Cuba specialist with the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank. This includes the U.S. elections, recent decisions by Raul Castro to release some dissidents and consider economic reforms and a "leadership transition that will inevitably bring some type of change to Cuba."
But in the short term, President Bush has given no indication he plans to follow President Richard Nixon's monumental decision to mend fences with China in the 1970s.
Bush has curtailed U.S. travel to Cuba, increased aid to Castro opponents and threatened to veto any congressional initiatives to weaken the sanctions. He has never had to make good on his threat because since 2005 bills to ease sanctions on travel and agricultural trade have been defeated on floor votes.
Also, the 1996 Helms-Burton Act allows an easing of sanctions only if Cuba first meets several conditions, such as allowing legal political activity and organizing free and fair elections without either Fidel or Raul Castro.
Neither of the Castro brothers has shown inclination to accept the U.S. conditions. Though Raul has encouraged some internal debate on the island's shortcomings, many dissidents remain in jail and others are routinely harassed.
Critics of the U.S. embargo nevertheless seized on Fidel Castro's announcement Tuesday to urge a reconsideration of U.S. policy with a view toward easing the sanctions.
More than 100 members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice requesting a "tough-minded review of U.S. policy."
"Our policy leaves us without influence at this critical moment, and this serves neither the U.S. national interest nor average Cubans, the intended beneficiaries of our policy," the letter says.
Jake Colvin, the director of USA*Engage, a business group that lobbies for lifting sanctions, said changing policies would benefit U.S. business and security interests. Not doing so risked "alienating another generation of Cubans and pushing the Cuban government farther into the arms of countries like Venezuela and China."
Presidential hopefuls Sens. John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama all support the embargo, though Clinton and Obama favor increased family contacts.
Regardless of who wins the White House, Andy Gomez, with the University of Miami's Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies, believes no big changes will happen until Fidel Castro dies.
"As long as Fidel Castro is alive and has the mental capacity to do so, he will be involved in major decisions," said Gomez, who believes that neither Democrats nor Republicans will initiate any changes "until it's clear who's leading Cuba, and what's his goal."
But Gomez also believes the next president will launch a review of Cuba policy early in the next term.
Miami Herald staff writer Jay Weaver contributed to this report.